Here’s a challenge: Try to remember the last time you saw something about addiction in the media that wasn’t negative. Commercials for luxury rehabs don’t count. It’s difficult, isn’t it?
Everything we have learned about addiction tells us that addiction is a brain disease.1 When a person abuses mind-altering chemicals over a period of time, the brain’s structure and functioning are irreparably damaged. In particular, the reward and pleasure centers of the brain become so overstimulated that it becomes increasingly difficult for a substance user to tolerate normal levels of stimulation. The body manifests a number of unpleasant symptoms — known as withdrawal — when deprived of the substances to which one has become dependent, making it extremely hard for a person to stop using and get sober.
When you consider the disease model of addiction, it’s more understandable that addicts would struggle so intensely with their habits before they’re able to get sober. However, the continued demonization of addiction suggests public perceptions aren’t informed by facts and up-to-date research. Instead, it would seem that the overwhelming negative portrayal of addicts in the media has perpetuated the addiction stigma, which, in turn, is largely why only 16 percent of addicts are seeking treatment.2 But why is addiction so stigmatized in the first place?
Where Does the Addiction Stigma Come From?
The addiction stigma persists today because addiction, much like mental illness, has a long history of being viewed through an overtly negative lens. In hindsight, it’s difficult to fault previous generations for being so prejudiced against addicts since their negative views were precipitated by a lack of information. On paper, addiction appears to be a behavioral problem, which would imply that a person chooses to chronically abuse alcohol or drugs. With little or no evidence to the contrary, this assumption would actually make the most sense and, naturally, inspire very little sympathy toward addicts.
At a point, lack of sympathy turns into animosity as addicts’ substance abuse problems become increasingly troublesome for others. By all appearances, addicts were individuals who chose to overindulge and who seemed unaffected by how their lack of self-restraint caused problems for others. However, while we can understand the negativity people had toward addicts years ago, popular opinion has not changed much despite all we’ve learned since then. Rather than considering addicts with a comparable level of empathy as someone suffering from diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, addiction is still widely viewed as an immoral or criminal affliction.
Addiction Stigmatization in the Media
Despite the wealth of information at our disposal today, there is still a strong stigma attached to addiction, which begs the question why. Like bipolar disorder and diabetes, addiction is a disease, but much of the population continues to consider those who suffer from addiction as having some type of moral failing. In fact, addicts are held in a lower regard than those who are mentally ill,3 illustrating the level to which most individuals see substance abuse problems as character flaws. It seems unlikely that such a substantial part of the population has simultaneously decided to disregard evidence. Instead, it would seem that most individuals’ views are informed by what they see in the media.
Until recently, mental illness had a stigma in much the same way that addiction does today. Media portrayals of the mentally ill have been more sensitive because the development of mental illness is seen as being out of a person’s control. By comparison, addiction can only develop from an existing substance abuse problem, putting the development of the disease well within an addict’s control. While this discrepancy is understandable, it’s not actually why much media coverage of addicts is negative.
When addiction is the subject of news coverage, the context is often negative, such as when a celebrity is revealed to have a substance abuse problem or when an addict is alleged to have committed a crime. In such instances, the focus of the coverage is on shaming the individual who suffers from addiction.4 But this creates another problem in addition to encouraging the general population to see addiction as shameful. Specifically, the tendency of the media to shame addicts causes individuals suffering from addiction to feel immense shame, which makes them less likely to seek treatment.5 In other words, the threat of being shamed for one’s substance abuse problem serves to perpetuate or prolong a person’s addiction.
In many cases, media coverage of addiction focuses on the most extreme cases and widespread social effects. Whatever the specific coverage may be, the context or tone is often negative, encouraging a negative outlook on addiction.
Hope Is the Solution
The media’s stigmatization of addiction has caused widespread intolerance toward addicts. This is unfortunate because many people with addiction would be more receptive to aid without the threat of being shamed and demonized. However, as unfortunate as the situation may be, there’s a silver lining. Although the media has been a major contributor to society’s negative views of addiction, it’s within the power of those in the media to solve this problem.
Attitudes toward addicts would change if addiction started being portrayed differently by journalists, newscasters, reporters, bloggers and other members of the media. As well, more addicts would seek treatment without the fear of being shamed. A more hopeful tone — i.e., reporting on promising new treatments, research studies, decreasing abuse rates for certain substances, celebratory stories of recovery and so on — would show the general public that addicts aren’t the menaces they’d been led to believe. Perhaps most importantly, promoting hope rather than stigma in the media will result in a greater level of support for those in recovery, those who have a history of substance abuse, and those who would like to seek treatment for their substance abuse problems.